by Hannah Beach | Jun 5, 2023
Emotional safety is essential to learning. And the essence of emotional safety is the connection that the student feels with the teacher. Once the student is attached to a teacher, that teacher has the capacity to pass on the ‘attachment baton’. If we can intentionally harness this attachment energy and share it with others in the child’s life who will also be leading them, it can go a long way to support their learning and maturation.
Bridging helps kids feel more connected
Children need a strong sense of connection to us if we are meant to guide them. We also need to keep the connection from being disrupted. When the end of the school day is coming up, the child knows that the connection with you is coming to an end, which means disconnection. For some children, this may trigger their alarm. The answer is obviously not to follow them home. The challenge becomes helping them bridge to the next connecting point: “I look forward to seeing you tomorrow,” or something similar that brings attention to the next time of connection. Bridging is important whenever something threatens the connection—whether it be a lack of belonging, not feeling accepted or emotionally invited, a physical distance, or even the passage of time.
Holidays and summer breaks can be particularly difficult for some students. How can we support these students?
Find a way to help them hold on to you—whether it is a note you send, an object they can take with them that reminds them of you, or something else creative. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive. Sometimes I make felted wool hearts that I give to my students at the end of a class, which gives them a tangible reminder of our time together and lets them know that I am thinking about them. This can be especially helpful at the end of a school year, when they will be transitioning to another class. Bridging can also mean looking ahead: introducing the next teacher in order to lessen the anxiety of the unknown.
Many of the things we have talked about come into play even more when we have a child with anxiety, who needs greater assurance. We must strengthen our connection so the child feels safe with us and feels our warmth while feeling confident in our ability to take the lead, so they don’t have to. Communicating “I’ve got this” can go a long way to lowering our alarm—for children and adults alike. (Read more: Reclaiming our Students, p. 104/105)
Matchmaking helps us to pass the ‘attachment baton’
Matchmaking works by harnessing the energy from the existing connection a student already has to help them build another connection. We can intentionally harness this energy as we transition the care of our students to others that will be leading and caring for them.
Here are some scenarios where bridging and matchmaking can help support connection, which in turn can help provide the conditions needed for learning to happen:
from main teacher to substitute teacher;
from current support person to the next support person (eg. counsellor, educational assistant, learning assistant, etc);
from one grade to the next (eg. the teacher in June to the next teacher in September).
What matchmaking might look like
As many of us know first-hand, substitute teaching (also known as occasional, supply, relief, casual, or teaching on call) has to be one of the most challenging ways to teach. Since relationship is the context in which kids learn, substitute teachers can be at a loss. Understanding this, many schools are shifting how they use substitute teachers. Schools now often have the students’ usual teacher matchmake their students to the substitute teacher.
Keeping in mind the importance of relationship in learning, some schools now introduce the substitute teachers at the beginning of the year and try to consistently use the same replacement teacher. However, that’s not possible for many schools. In these cases, I have heard from some teachers that they leave a letter for their students in the file for the teacher replacing them. This is a letter of introduction that the substitute teacher reads out loud to the class. What’s important is that the letter matchmakes on both sides. The teacher would, of course, make the letter age appropriate and relevant to the specific scenario as well.
The letter might be something along the lines of:
Dear class, sorry I am away. Ugh. I am sick. I have asked Mr. Singh to come in while I am away. He is a good teacher (ask him to show you his crazy spelling game!). He will take care of you until I’m back. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Dear Mr. Singh, thanks for coming in; you are lucky as you get to teach my awesome class. You will be in good hands as these students are very welcoming and hard-working. Ask them to show you the timeline they just made. I think you’ll find it interesting.
Although letters like these don’t replace the teacher, nor do they instantly create a trusting relationship, they can go a long way in helping the students connect to this new person they have for the day. The substitute teacher will still need to do the work of collecting them, but you will have laid some groundwork as the teacher who is in relationship with the students. (Read more: Reclaiming our Students, p. 79/80)
Letters like this can be particularly helpful when it comes to year-end transitions. The important thing to remember is that it is more than just passing information ABOUT the child; this is to help create a connection WITH the child, which is why the letters are written to both parties.
More practical matchmaking ideas
As a teacher of a class:
If you do know who the new teacher is for the following year, you can bring the new teacher into your class in June. After a friendly introduction has been made, the future teacher can share an activity with the students. Sharing food and a playful activity are natural ways to build a sense of connection.
If you do NOT yet know who the new teacher is for the following year, then you can facilitate a transition time in the first days of the new school year.
This could be:
a short activity facilitated by the previous year’s teacher once they arrive at school. The students would be welcomed by the teacher they knew and then transitioned to their next teacher. We have observed some schools spend up to a week with their teachers from the year before (or at least a familiar face), before they transition to their new teacher.
simply just pop into your ‘old’ class to say hello to your previous students and be warm to their new teacher in front of them. Take a moment to say how lucky the teacher is to have these students and vice versa. You can also let them know that although you are no longer their teacher, you look forward to seeing them in the halls/playground etc.
This time of intentional connection and matchmaking can go a long way to increase the emotional safety of our students. There are many creative ways that this can be done once you realize the importance of connection for a child.
As a support person for a student:
If you are transitioning the care of your student as a support person, it will be important to orient the student to what will be happening (ie. if possible, don’t just disappear!) and make room for any feelings that may arise with this transition. If you have a good connection, the child may be sad and/or disappointed that they will no longer be with you. By making room for these feelings first, before going to the positive aspects of the change (eg. “You are going to love your new person – they are great!”), it helps build resilience in the child. By allowing the child to move through the difficult feelings, not dismissing or rushing them along to what you hope they will feel, their brain is more likely to recognize that they will be okay and be able to adapt to the upcoming change.
If you know who is replacing you, you can matchmake the child to the new person by speaking highly of them and introducing them to each other before you leave. Sharing food and a playful activity are natural ways to build a sense of connection.
If you do NOT know who is replacing you, you could write a general letter of introduction that warms each party to each other.
This letter might be something along the lines of:
Dear lucky person that gets to work with (name of student), I didn’t get the chance to meet you but I wanted you to know how fortunate you are to get to work with (name of student).
You then may say a few words about the students that reflect some of the positive things you know of and/or enjoyed about working with the student.
He/She has such a great sense of humour and also happens to be amazing with taking care of plants! Get him/her to show you the indoor garden they are working on.
In this case, as you don’t know who their new support person is, you cannot specifically speak about the new person to your previous student. Therefore the matchmaking would need to be done more generally, as in:
Dear (name of student), I’ve been thinking about you. I know that this year you are working with someone new. I didn’t get the chance to meet him/her but I am sure that you are in good hands! I have told them how lucky they are to get to work with you. I also told them how great you are with plants! Show them the garden you have been working on …
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS on helping students hold on to you when apart – for whatever reason:
Giving a child an object as a way to remember your connection can be really helpful; however, this can sometimes increase anxiety if they are worried about losing it. For this reason, you could do something more symbolic, like giving an actual rock but describing how any rock they see could remind them of your connection (note that you could do this with any object in nature: ocean, tree, pinecones, dandelions, etc.). While you could go directly to something intangible, sometimes it does help to start with a concrete object that represents something else that can be found easily in their environment.
The book, The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst, is a wonderful resource to introduce this idea of staying connected when apart. The Kissing Hand and A Pocketful of Kisses, by Audrey Penn, are other wonderful resources with this same idea of holding on; these are more often used to help a child hold on to a family member while they are at school, but the concepts can be adapted to any situation.
Remember that while you may no longer be physically with your student or students, relationship can be forever. In fact, we both still have fond memories of teachers and students that we felt connected to in the past and their memory lives on in our hearts.
Hannah Beach and Tamara Strijack